Abdul Ghani El Ajou v Dollar Land Holdings Ltd Factorum NV

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
Judgment Date02 December 1994
Judgment citation (vLex)[1993] EWCA Civ J1202-1
Docket NumberCHANF 92/0879/B
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
Date02 December 1994
Abdul Ghani El Ajou
Dollar Land Holdings Limited Factorum NV

[1993] EWCA Civ J1202-1

(Mr. Justice Millett)

Before: Lord Justice Nourse Lord Justice Rose and Lord Justice Hoffmann

CHANF 92/0879/B




MR. M. BELOFF QC, MR. R. ELLIS and MISS. S. MOORE (instructed by Bower Cotton & Bower of London EC4Y 8BH) appeared on behalf of the Appellant

MR. R. TAGER (instructed by Kaufman Kramer Shebson of London NW1 6QW) appeared on behalf of the Respondents




Of the questions that remain in dispute in this case, the most important is whether, for the purposes of establishing a company's liability under the knowing receipt head of constructive trust, the knowledge of one of its directors can be treated as having been the knowledge of the company. That is essentially a question of company law. There are or have been other questions on tracing and constructive trust.


The company is the first defendant, Dollar Land Holdings PLC ("DLH"). The director is Mr Sylvain Ferdman, who was the chairman and one of the three directors of DLH between June 1985 and June 1987. The party who seeks to recover against DLH in constructive trust is the plaintiff, Abdul Ghani El Ajou. He has put his claim at £1.3m. On 12th June 1992, after a trial extending over some 11 days, Mr Justice Millett delivered a reserved judgment dismissing the plaintiff's action. He held that the plaintiff had an equitable right to trace the money into the hands of DLH, but that Mr Ferdman's knowledge of their fraudulent misapplication could not be treated as having been the knowledge of DLH, either on the ground of his having been its directing mind and will or on the ground of his having been its agent in the transaction. The judge found that another person closely concerned with the affairs of DLH, Mr William Stern, did not have the requisite knowledge of the misapplication. The plaintiff now appeals to this court. He does not seek to upset the judge's finding in regard to Mr Stern. DLH has put in a respondent's notice whose primary purpose is to impugn the judge's finding as to one part of the tracing exercise.


Mr Justice Millett's judgment is reported at (1993) 2 All ER 717. Because the report sets out in full the judge's clear and necessarily lengthy statement of the facts and because the issues have narrowed in this court, the facts can now be stated relatively briefly. I will state them mainly in the judge's own words.


The facts


The plaintiff is a wealthy Arab businessman resident in Riyadh. He was the largest single victim, though only one of many victims, of a massive share fraud carried out in Amsterdam between 1984 and 1985 by three Canadians, Allan Lindzon (or Levinson), Lloyd Caplan and Harry Roth ("the Canadians"). Some of the proceeds of the fraud were passed from Amsterdam through intermediate resting places in Geneva, Gibraltar, Panama and Geneva (again) to London, where in 1986 they were invested in a joint venture to carry out a property development project at Nine Elms in Battersea in conjunction with DLH. The interest of the Canadians in the joint venture was bought out by DLH in 1988, which is a public limited company incorporated in England but resident for tax purposes in Switzerland. It is a holding company. Its principal activities, carried on through its subsidiaries, are property dealing and investment. At the material time it was in a substantial way of business. It denies that in 1986 it had any knowledge that the money which the Canadians invested in the project represented the proceeds of fraud. Moreover, in buying out their interest in 1988 it claims to have been a bona fide purchaser for value without notice of the fraud.


Mr Ferdman is a Swiss national, resident in Geneva. He worked for many years for the Bank of International Credit in Geneva. In 1972 he left the bank and set up his own company, Société d'Administration et de Financement SA ("SAFI"), through which he acted as a fiduciary agent. SAFI was originally owned jointly by Mr Ferdman and an old-established Swiss cantonal bank of good reputation, but in 1982 Mr Ferdman became its sole proprietor. SAFI acted as a fiduciary agent for clients who did not wish their identities to be disclosed. Two of its clients were a Mr Singer and a Mr Goldhar, who were associates of the Canadians. Mr Ferdman was accustomed to accept funds from clients without questioning their origin, and to act for clients who were anxious to conceal their identity. He regarded the need to preserve his clients' anonymity as paramount—without it he would have had no business—and to this end he was willing on occasion to present himself or SAFI as a beneficial owner and to make false statements to that effect. The judge found that it must have been plain to Mr Ferdman by the end of October 1985 that Singer and Goldhar were implicated in a fraud. Moreover, Mr Ferdman admitted to the judge at the trial that he knew perfectly well that the Canadians were involved with Singer and Goldhar in the fraud and were not just behind them. The Canadians also had a fiduciary agent resident in Geneva who acted for them. He was Mr David d'Albis, an American citizen.


DLH is an English company which was formerly listed on the London Stock Exchange. In June 1985 its entire issued share capital was acquired by Keristal Investments and Trading SA ("Keristal"), a Panamanian company beneficially owned by a Liechtenstein foundation. In the annual reports of DLH Mr Ferdman described himself as the beneficial owner of Keristal, but that was not the case. He was simply preserving the anonymity of his principals, the founders and beneficiaries of the Liechtenstein foundation, who were two US citizens resident in New York ("the Americans"). The judge recorded that the plaintiff was satisfied that the Americans had no connection of any kind with the Canadians or their associates or any of the other persons involved in the fraud.


DLH was acquired as a vehicle for the Americans' property dealings in the United Kingdom. Its business activities were under the direction of Mr William Stern, described by the judge as a property dealer who suffered a spectacular and well-publicised bankruptcy as a result of the 1974 property crash. He was engaged in the business of identifying opportunities for property investment and introducing them to investors willing to pay him a fee or a share in the eventual profits. Mr Stern had lived in Geneva as a boy and was acquainted with Mr Ferdman. They became friends, though they lost contact with each other for some years. Mr Stern knew that he was a fiduciary agent and had established SAFI, which he believed still to be jointly owned by Mr Ferdman and a reputable cantonal bank. From time to time he suggested deals to Mr Ferdman and enquired of him whether he had any suitable investors among his clients.


Mr Ferdman introduced the Americans to Mr Stern, who was able to recommend a successful investment in a United Kingdom property. The Americans were willing to make further investments in the United Kingdom, and Mr Stern suggested that he should look for a suitable English vehicle, if possible a quoted company, which they could acquire and use as a medium for further investment. Mr Stern found DLH and Keristal acquired it as a pure cash shell in June 1985. Mr Ferdman and Mr Favre and Mr Jaton, two fellow directors of SAFI, were appointed to be the directors of DLH and Mr Ferdman its chairman. The judge described the three of them as nominee directors representing the interests of the beneficial owners. They played no part in the conduct of DLH's business which was carried on by Mr Stern in consultation with the Americans. Mr Stern was not a director of DLH, but he was appointed managing director of Dollar Land Management Ltd., one of its subsidiaries. DLH was in a substantial way of business and was able to raise very large sums on the security of its assets. At the end of 1986 it had secured bank loans and other mortgage creditors of more than £10m. By the end of 1987 that figure had risen to more than £30m.


Mr Stern asked Mr Ferdman if he could find an investor willing to put up equity finance for the Nine Elms project. Mr Ferdman, who was to receive from DLH an introductory commission of five per cent of the funds obtained, brought one of the Canadians, Roth, to London in March 1986 and introduced him to Mr Stern, who provided him with a detailed investment proposal which included a profit forecast. All negotiations were conducted between Roth and Mr Stern. Mr Ferdman played no part. By a letter dated 20th March 1986 and addressed to Roth, care of SAFI in Geneva, the terms which had been agreed between him and Mr Stern were set out. Although that letter was signed by Mr Ferdman, it was composed entirely by Mr Stern. I will return to it later in this judgment.


On 25th March Mr Ferdman copied the letter of 20th March (with two variations which the judge inferred were made at the request of the Canadians) by telex to Mr d'Albis, who gave instructions on the same day for £270,000 to be transferred from Geneva to the Royal Bank of Scotland in London for the account of DLH's solicitors, Grangewoods. The judge found that that sum represented proceeds of the fraud and that finding has not been questioned in this court. Subsequently, Mr Ferdman despatched a duplicate of the telex in the form of a letter on DLH's headed paper, and over his own signature, to Yulara Realty Ltd. ("Yulara") in Panama. That letter was dated 7th April. Again, I will return to it...

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